The Untold Truth Of Animal Crackers

With a variety of different snacks taking their place in our lifetimes, there is no other one that has a history to it quite like the animal cracker. Shaped like our favorite wild animals, from elephants to monkeys, bunnies to zebras, bison to hyena, these sweet crackers are a childhood and pop culture staple that has gained a serious following. In fact, they still remain a favored and delicious snack today. 

But how much do we actually know about these little treats? And how is it exactly that they came to our grocery store shelves in their iconic little box? Also, how many different animals have actually been featured in these fan-favorite treats? And what is it that makes them so undeniably unique and delicious? As you can already guess, the seemingly humble animal cracker just might have a surprisingly rich and interesting history. We've gathered all the need-to-know info on these fun crackers for you to indulge in, so keep reading and maybe get a full jar of the snack ready nearby. After this article, you're surely going to be craving them.  

Animal crackers have been around for centuries

The custom of shaping cookies to resemble animals has been traced back to at least the 17th century, where they were part of a midwinter festival and previously pagan religious observation known as "Julfest", according to What's Cooking America. During Julfest, it was common to sacrifice animals to the gods, who would in turn hopefully offer up mild weather and good crops. However, poor people faced a dilemma — they couldn't even pretend to sacrifice their valuable agricultural animals, so instead, they gave offered animal-shaped bread and cookies in their creatures' stead. 

In Bavaria and Austria, those cookies eventually began to be known as "Springerle" and were impressed with all manner of images, sometimes including animals. The cookie was also used for celebrations, such as weddings and births, while hopeful paramours are said to have given them to their beloved as engagement tokens, too.

The iconic animal cracker we know wasn't actually born until centuries later in 1871, after the Stauffer's company was founded by David E. Stauffer in York, Pennsylvania (per Stauffer's). The company created these cookies to have smaller amounts of sugar and shortening than other similar treats. They also employed a layered dough in the cookie-making process for a uniquely flaky, crunchy texture. Over the years, Stauffer's has also added full lines of baked snacks including the popular Ginger Snaps and Whales Baked Cheddar Crackers, but animal crackers have remained their most historical and, for some, beloved snack. 

Barnum's Animal Cracker weren't the first ones out there

When 1902 came around, fans of the snack were introduced to Nabisco's version that we all know and love today — Barnum's Animals Cracker. Named after famed circus owner and showbiz impresario P.T. Barnum, Nabisco — currently also of Teddy Grahams and Nilla Wafers fame — capitalized on the popularity of the circus at the time with what was then known as Barnum's Animals. That moniker was later changed to Barnum's Animal Crackers in 1948, according to "American Food by the Decades." Despite the name, P.T. Barnum himself never profited from the animal-shaped crackers, given that this was a time before many copyright laws were enacted.

While Stauffer's has continued to make their version of the crackers, Barnum's Animal Crackers have appealed to fans, due to the well-known packaging and cookie detail, created to pull buyers in. Unlike Stauffer's animal shapes that aren't highly detailed, Nabisco began using rotary dies in 1958, which gave the crackers enough detail for snackers to easily identify each animal, per Treehugger. And they've kept pretty busy over the years, too. Recently, per "American Food by the Decades", the company currently produced an estimated 7 million crackers a day in its factory.

The box was meant to be an ornament

Nabisco was the first to sell these snacks in boxes, as previously cookies were sold in small containers called "cracker barrels", as "American Food by the Decades" reports. The red circus wagon style, featuring animals behind the bars and a unique string on the top of the packaging, came out by Christmas 1902. The intention behind the string was that consumers would be able to use the box of cookies as Christmas ornaments. For more than a century, the company used around 8,000 miles of string every year, according to You Don't Know Jersey

Although recently, it seems that the string has disappeared. The company quietly ditched the well-known string component of its package around three years ago, according to a thread on Reddit board r/nostalgia. One user suggested the change had occurred as a cost-saving measure, stating that "Originally the string was there because animal crackers were meant to be a Christmas ornament and hung from trees. Since no one does that anymore, they switched to cardboard as a cost-saving measure."

Barnum's Animal Crackers got major pushback from PETA

Barnum's Animal Crackers did get a major push from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to change its packaging back in 2018. The animal rights activists had argued that the longstanding images of animals in cages was inextricably linked to the cruelty of an era where circus and zoo animals were trapped in painfully small cages, says The New York Times. After 116 years behind bars, the new boxes depicted cage-free animals, including a zebra, a lion, an elephant, a giraffe, and a gorilla as they walk across the savannah with tufts of grass on the ground and trees in the distance. It's certainly a more idyllic picture than the previously imprisoned wild creatures, even if it's not strictly zoologically accurate (gorillas don't live on the savannah, for one, and that lion might make the zebra nervous).

"The new box for Barnum's Animal Crackers perfectly reflects that our society no longer tolerates the caging and chaining of wild animals for circus shows," PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman told USA Today. "PETA is celebrating this redesign, just as we've celebrated the end of Ringling Bros. circus and the introduction of animal-circus bans across the U.S."

Many different animals have been featured as animal crackers

Since the beginning of Nabisco's involvement in the animal cracker game, 37 different animals have been featured in the boxes of Barnum's Animal Crackers, giving Nabisco a bit of an edge as the company producing the most variety of any animals, according to Culinary Lore. Today, a two-ounce box will generally feature 19 different animals, including two bears and one of each of a wide list of other animals, including a bison, camel, hippo, hyena, seal, and zebra, among others.

What's interesting is the monkey cracker is the only one known to be wearing clothes, according to Reader's Digest. No one seems to know why, though the subject has been a topic of speculation for quite some time. A 1998 episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" even pointed out this rather striking fact, with one character wondering: "The monkey is the only cookie animal that gets to wear clothes, you know that? [...] So I'm wondering, do the other cookie animals feel sort of ripped? Like, is the hippo going, 'Hey man, where are my pants? I have my hippo dignity.' "

They've made their way into pop culture

That quip in one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" wasn't the only pop culture moment to feature the animal-shaped snack — not by far. These treats also appeared in Shirley Temple's 1935 film, "Curly Top", in which she sang the popular "Animal Crackers in My Soup." She didn't get the facts of the snack quite right though, as she sang that "monkeys and rabbits loop the loop." Turns out, rabbits have never been one of the wildlife friends to join in a box of animal crackers, says Culinary Lore. More recently, the song was played during a TikTok trend that showed other creators how easy it was to avoid uttering racial slurs (via StayHipp). The trend became popular amongst TikTokkers of color, with over 45,000 videos linked to the sound. 

In another pop culture moment for the snack, the 2020 Netflix kids movie "Animal Crackers" brought some of our favorites to life with the main character turning into whichever shape he eats. The movie earned a decent 64% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and a 78% audience score. 

With all that backstory, it's hard to deny that animal crackers are one of the most historical treats you might ever indulge in. With everything that has come from these little animal-shaped cookies, it can feel like you're holding a piece of history in your hand (though you may still be missing that string, at least if you're of a certain age).